Why Christianity Must Change or Die — John Shelby Spong

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Spong wrote the book with that title in 1998¹. He was not some outsider, but an Episcopal, Anglican Bishop. A younger generation may have grown up unaware of him, so I thought it would be worthwhile to write a brief article about this exceptional man, making readers aware of his books, and hopefully to keep his tradition alive.

In the ensuing twenty years I think it is fair to say that Christianity has not changed very much, but outsiders’ dissatisfaction with it has increased strongly. We have seen the rise of the aggressive New Atheism movement, and several recent articles on Medium are another indication of that trend. The problems that Spong identified are still relevant, but little, if anything, has been done to address them.

His title is self-explanatory. He was speaking as a devoted Christian, but not devoted to the Christianity in which he found himself ensconced. He had previously written Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism² and Liberating the Gospels³,and subsequently wrote A New Christianity for a New World⁴. Put together, these titles were demanding a revolutionary agenda for the Church. Spong is therefore a potential latter-day Martin Luther figure, a prophet of a new Reformation. (I have just noticed for the first time that a subtitle in small print on the front cover says ‘A New Reformation of the Church’s Faith and Practice’.) As he is now in his late 80s, he may not live to see his dream realised.

In her book The Great Emergence⁵ Phyllis Tickle observes that “about every 500 years, Christianity goes through a groundbreaking paradigm shift”. The list so far is: Jesus, the collapse of the Roman Empire which forced the Church to go underground, the separation of Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, and the Protestant Reformation. It would seem therefore that we are due another revolution, perhaps the greatest one of all. It is reassuring to know that others are thinking along similar lines as Spong, and that he might actually be the catalyst.

Before writing the book in my title, Spong had already expended much time and energy challenging Christian orthodoxy, including the two books mentioned above. Readers will probably not be surprised to discover, as he recounts in his preface, that:

  • he was met by “an increasing and unremitting hostility among certain groups of ordained people and among their fellow lay travelers in conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist circles”. As an example, he had the dubious honour of being called an ‘Anglican Nightmare’⁶.
  • he has lectured while being protected by guards, has had to walk through shouting picket lines, endured a bomb threat, and the ultimate: “I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’ ”.

This just goes to show that there are some deranged lunatics among the followers of a teacher who preached love, and total and unconditional forgiveness of one’s enemies. Is it any surprise that many neutral people are turned off by Christianity and find alternative homes, whether Eastern religions or atheism? Compared to all this hostility, it seems relatively trivial to say that he was also frequently misrepresented by the media, who distorted what he said, in order to sensationalise the material, and obtain some cheap copy.

He names three people who especially inspired him. The two who resonate with me are:

  • John Elbridge Hines, “who exhibited the courage of his convictions sufficient to lead Christianity to places it had never been before… He pushed his church into real dialogue with the real world”.
  • John A. T. Robinson, author of Honest to God. Spong says that he continues “his honest quest to reconcile authentic Christian faith with knowledge and awareness”.

The phrases I’ve italicised are some of what I expect will be needed in this New Reformation.

Spong mentions other Christians who have lost their faith, and to whom he seems a “hopeless conservative for remaining committed to the church and the Christian faith”, yet to others he is “a fellow pilgrim”. He calls himself a “believer in exile”, and I have a lot of sympathy for that stance, because I too feel like a believer in exile. I’ll elaborate on that in another article soon.

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“Seek the truth come whence it may, cost what it will”. This was the motto of the theological seminary in which Spong was trained. He says that he has always remained true to it.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click and ).

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Footnotes:

1. John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco

2. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

3. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996

4. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001

5. Baker Books, 2008

6. Wayne Jackson, John Shelby Spong: Anglican Nightmare:

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